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DIVORCE AND PARENTHOOD: Guilt Trips and Guilt Traps

Divorce is never easy. But whether your divorce is an amicable one, a litigated nightmare, or somewhere in between, whenever children are involved guilt is inextricably woven into the equation somewhere. After the divorce you might get to see your children every day, every week or some less frequent arrangement, but no matter how often you see them, there is no denying the family structure has radically changed. This change often provokes both parents to alter their parenting methods, perhaps even more so for the non- custodial parent. Some changes are circumstantial and therefore necessary, but many others are truly motivated by guilt, and it's these we should keep in check. Guilt-driven parenting can lead to some disastrous results.

The Guilt Trip

Any parent who loves his/her children wants them to be happy and as unaffected by the divorce as possible. But I have never seen a divorce with kids involved (including my own) where they weren't hurt to some degree. The guilt we feel seeing our children suffer because of our personal decisions can be almost unbearable. As a result, we often find ourselves doing almost anything to compensate for the pain we have caused. While we might believe that over-compensation is in some sense redemptive and healing, we can be easily deceived by ourselves and by the reactions of our kids. We do something, we see them smile, and so we kick into overkill believing we have found a way to erase their pain and our guilt. In the long run, however, many of these things will only cause them more pain - and you more guilt. So, let's look at some traps to be avoided into which guilt- ridden parents often fall.

The Guilt Traps: Five Things to Avoid

  1. Tipping the scales. Whether your relationship with your ex-spouse is horrible or tolerable, there is always a temptation to encourage favoritism of the children toward you. In order to relieve some of your guilt, you may find yourself trying to convince your kids that the other parent is the "bad guy". It isn't difficult to sway small children in this way. But even if your ex-spouse was the main cause of the divorce, to try and make him/her look vicious in your children's eyes is always a fatal error. Suddenly they're in the middle and forced to arbitrate circumstances they neither caused nor could have prevented. This only increases their anguish and guilt.
  2. Even though time with your kids might be limited, sometimes it's healthy to just let them play by themselves while you watch the news or read your book. We often overdo it by spending every waking moment trying to entertain them. Whether motivated by guilt or a sense of obligation, it's simply unnatural - and to some degree just being in the same house with them is indeed time with them. If your children were still living at home with you, it's unlikely you would smother them with such attention; therefore, you should avoid doing it when they visit for extended periods of time. Of course, this might not apply if you're only able to see them for one day out of some prolonged period of time, but if you get a few days with them or even get to see them every weekend or so, allow some breathing time for you both.
  3. The Santa Claus syndrome. The "Santa Claus" image extends beyond unnatural attention. As the name implies, a common pitfall (and one also often motivated by guilt) is to buy our kids things to try to make them happy, to try and smother out their pain with presents. Of course, toys are nice and fun to give our little ones, but they can never replace the time and attention you give your children. Toys are a temporary investment and will eventually lie broken somewhere in the dark recesses of their toy box. Time is an investment that lasts a lifetime. Toys, video games, and TV are fine in moderation, just don't let them bump you from your proud and honorable position of Mom or Dad.
  4. Role swapping. When someone is angry or hurt, he usually needs to talk about it. Even those who are introverted need someone to whom they can vent, someone to encourage them when things have been difficult. A major mistake divorced parents can make is choosing their child to be their counselor. Seeking comfort, sympathy and affirmation, we may find ourselves essentially swapping roles with our kids, going to them with our problems instead of encouraging them to come to us with theirs. Besides meeting a basic emotional need to vent, by eliciting sympathy and affirmation from our children, we erroneously believe that "they understand" and hence that our guilty feelings are unwarranted.

Another form of role swapping is being afraid to discipline your children. It's motivated by a need to relieve our guilt and make our kids happy. However, there may be a sense of self-punishment going on as well. Feeling the temptation to let your children "run the house" can be a way of inflicting punishment on yourself for causing them pain from the divorce. The kids are given the freedom of an adult and the parent is, in essence, being punished by the children's misbehavior. When you find yourself eliciting sympathy from your kids and/or allowing them to "run the house", a red flag should be racing up your parenting flagpole.

5. Sticking it out for the sake of the kids. Should a couple avoid divorce at all costs for the sake of their children? This is no doubt one of the most controversial issues concerning kids and divorce. It stems from an old-fashioned, child-centered view of marriage whereby the children take precedence over the marriage relationship. Even today there are differing views from psychologists and family therapists as to whether it is healthier for the kids if Mom and Dad stay married for their sake (despite personal misery) or if they divorce.

There is no cut and dry answer to this question; however, based on all available evidence, it seems the right decision depends on each individual situation. Every effort should be made to save your marriage. There is an abundance of excellent marriage seminar material out there to explore, and couples with troubles can often find hope in the midst of hopelessness; "dead" relationships can and have been "resurrected" to be better than ever. If you dash your pride against the stones and seek restoration of your marriage, there is a good chance you will find it. Even the worst of situations can be healed with forgiveness, understanding, and some good counseling.

But what if you have explored every reasonable avenue and it's still just not working out? No matter how you try to hide this from your children, they will know. I've known many couples who try to just live as "friends", putting up with each other for the sake of their children. I've also known many who were the children of such marriages who have said to me, "I wish they would've just divorced. They would've been happier and so would I."

Remember: kids learn about love and relationships from their parents - if you are willing to settle for a dead marriage, chances are they will to. The point? If you have given every effort to save your marriage and it's simply not working, don't let guilt keep you from divorce. Sometimes divorce is the lesser of two evils. Sometimes it's actually healthier for your children if you divorce than if you stay together in a "Household from Hell".

To be sure, there are many more traps you can fall into because of guilt. However, if you can avoid these five, you and your children will be happier in the long run. Guilt is natural - and even justified - when children suffer because of divorce; however, like almost anything else, it can be used to help or hurt. When guilt controls you, you may well fall into its traps. When you harness your guilt however, you can use it to better your parenting skills.


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